After a grueling journey from Scotland to America on a quest to reunite with his beloved, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) crosses paths with a mysterious drifter named Silas (Michael Fassbender) in the forests of Colorado. It’s fortuitous timing, as Jay has gotten himself into a bit of trouble, and Silas understands that violence is necessary in order to survive in the west – a concept which the timid youth struggles to grasp.
For a price, Silas offers to accompany Jay on his journey to locate his sweetheart – although as we learn through a series of flashbacks sprinkled throughout the film, Rose (Caren Pistorius) may not be terribly excited to see Jay again. But she’ll almost certainly be less excited by an introduction to Silas, who knows that a reward has been offered for the capture of Rose and her father (Rory McCann) in relation to a crime that occurred before their journey to America.
Further complicating matters is Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and his group of bounty hunters, with whom Silas has a prior relationship. After crossing paths with Jay in the woods, Payne and his men seem to always be lurking just out of sight, lending the latter half of the film a near-constant sense of foreboding as we keep waiting for them to strike.
Slow West gradually peels back the layers of its narrative while constantly remaining focused on the burgeoning friendship between Jay and Silas. Despite his distaste for ferocity, Jay finds himself becoming increasingly reliant on Silas and his wisdom, while Silas tries to fight a growing desire to protect the boy from the dangers of a world he isn’t prepared for.
Director John MacLean (who also wrote the screenplay) gives the quieter moments just enough room to breathe before punctuating them with instances of absurdly black humor or sudden, brutal flashes of violence, both of which seem to have been influenced by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. Of particular note is a tense, riveting shootout during the film’s climax, featuring a moment so farcical that I burst out laughing in spite of the onscreen carnage. It’s the kind of thing only the most competent of filmmakers could get away with, and MacLean absolutely nails it.
But despite MacLean’s prowess as a writer and director, Slow West ultimately succeeds on the strength of its cast, with Smit-McPhee as the wide-eyed innocent and Fassbender as the grizzled, trail-weary wanderer. Mendelsohn deserves a nod for being suitably creepy as the flick’s sort-of villain, but at its heart, this is a coming-of-age story about a young man in need of a strong role model and father figure, who finds it in the most unlikely of places.
Slow West is now available through most VOD platforms, and will open in Phoenix on Friday, May 22 exclusively at Harkins Valley Art.